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Event planning during a pandemic

June 29, 2020
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Events are an essential feature of downtown communities, both attracting attendees from outside the community and bringing people together from within the community to celebrate. With most communities canceling events and unsure when they will be able to resume programming in light of the pandemic, WEDC’s downtown development team is offering some ideas for how communities can adapt. These include a focus on smaller events and virtual events, as well as events that can be planned in a short amount of time—so communities can adopt creative strategies instead of simply going the whole summer without any events.


Think fast: Planning an event in two weeks

Many community events are planned months or even a year in advance, but with so many unknowns amid the pandemic this hasn’t been possible. Now that the prime event season of summer is here, with many communities’ best-loved events canceled, it is still possible to plan events with shorter notice and provide a source of hope, positivity and connection for your community.

It will be important for events to adhere to the new safety guidelines. For example, with retail stores beginning to reopen, a community might hold a shopping event with social distancing guidelines in place.

Events planned on short notice will need to be promoted virtually, rather than with printed materials. Marketing and promotion can even begin in advance of the event date being finalized; announce the event with dates TBD to begin building excitement and anticipation.

Wine walk

Wine walks, an extremely popular event format in recent years, are a great way for people to socialize with friends, visit local retail shops and try unique wines. Especially if a community has held a wine walk previously, it is easy to adapt the event for new health considerations. For example, the organizer might offer staggered appointments and allow attendees to reserve the time they would like to begin, might only allow a certain number of people into a shop at one time, might dictate the order attendees visit destinations instead of letting attendees choose, and might use only disposable cups.

Since wine can be ordered well in advance without spoilage concerns, this type of event can be planned with more advance notice. The wine can be ordered and stored, marketing can be done with a TBD date which will help generate interest and engage potential attendees, and all maps and material can be created, then sent to attendees via email prior to the event.

Music events

Live musical performances and music festivals are among the best-loved types of events but can be very difficult to plan given the ever-changing guidelines and public health restrictions. In the current environment, musicians may have greater availability and may be willing to adapt, with precise, specific contracts becoming less common. Communities might create a list of musicians to invite, reach out to all of them regarding availability, and may even be able to arrive at a contract with contingencies based on a possible date change or change in the musician’s availability. Meanwhile, the community can begin to market a “music in the park” series (for example) with dates and performers TBD.

Another consideration for this type of event is adhering to social distancing guidelines—for example, by setting out cones, stickers, or markers to enforce six feet of distance between unrelated parties attending the event.

Art walk

Art walks are a great way to celebrate art and artists while honoring social distancing, and can typically be put together with little notice. As with the music events, artists could be contacted about the event even before the date is firm, so organizing and promotion can begin while details are still being finalized. And as with wine walks, communities can take reservations and/or direct the order of stops to keep too many attendees from gathering in one place.

Think small: Live event ideas for smaller groups

With large events out of the question, communities don’t need to give up on live, in-person events altogether. Here are a few types of smaller events that can still help foster community spirit—and are perhaps more needed than ever with the larger events canceled.

Tasting menu event

A group of restaurants could work together to offer an event in which attendees travel around to visit all the restaurants and try one sample dish at each. Another option could be to offer food from various restaurants at a single location. This type of event can also be planned for curbside pick-up, and the organizer can offer a live feed with the chefs explaining each dish while attendees watch at home.


The large crowds parades can attract are problematic for preventing the spread of COVID-19—so instead of hosting parades that are open to everyone, communities might allow people to reserve space along the parade route (either free of charge or for a fee), then televise the parade for others who don’t have a reservation. Ticket purchasers might receive special discounts at downtown businesses in exchange for their ticket price, adding to the community benefit of the parade.

Chocolate crawl

Retail events are great examples of events that can be pared down to a smaller scale. For instance, communities might host a chocolate crawl, in which attendees visit different retail stores to try various chocolate offerings. The event organizers might offer two ticket types—a limited number of in-person experiences, along with curbside pick-up tickets that allow people to try the offerings at home—thus limiting the number of people inside these businesses at once, while engaging a larger audience. The event package can also include coupons/discounts to participating businesses to be used at another time, thus encouraging people to come back downtown at a later date.

Think virtual: Creative ideas for online events

Virtual events offer an option for creating community connections while residents want to stay safe at home. Some options include virtual retail events, virtual tours and virtual experiences.

Retail events

Virtual retail events are a great option to engage your customers from the comfort of their homes. Live videos on Facebook and/or Instagram offer a good platform for retail stores to showcase their offerings and explain what discounts and promotions they have underway. Stores might allow attendees to comment during the live event to purchase different items they see highlighted.

Virtual tours

Virtual tours are another great option to engage your community from home, as well as attract “virtual tourists” visiting from other communities. Ideas include touring the Main Street/downtown district, touring the historical district, touring the local museum and touring a local gallery, among others. Like virtual retail events, these can be marketed as live events and hosted as live videos on Facebook or Instagram. Live virtual events are more personal than pre-recorded videos, as they allow attendees to ask questions and engage. In conjunction with the tour, communities might offer incentives to bring attendees downtown once it is safe and they feel comfortable visiting in person. For example, a virtual museum tour might include a discounted ticket to visit in person at a later date.

Virtual experiences

Businesses and communities that think creatively about offering virtual experiences can help improve the quality of life for residents who are staying home. A local restaurant chef might host a virtual cooking class; when attendees purchase their ticket, they would be given a link to attend the live event and a list of ingredients and equipment to have ready. Or, a local artist might give a virtual painting class; attendees would receive a list of items to have ready, or a box of supplies for pick-up could be included in the ticket price.

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